IN Shaan Vyas’ short film Natkhat, a child interrupts a conversation between his grandfather and father at the dining table. The father is complaining about a woman politician who is asking for a heftier cut than before. The son, all of five, offers the solution: ‘Usey uthwalo [kidnap her].’ There is stunned silence in the room, before the grandfather mutters how the child should be made to watch only the Ramayana and the Mahabharat from now on. But the child is only parroting what he has seen his classmates doing to a girl who dared to laugh at one of them—taking her into the forest by force, when she was returning home from school, and cutting off her plaits.
It’s a searing comment on how little boys are socialised into ways of being a man, and for Vyas, who made his directorial debut, it is a powerful contribution to the unravelling, onscreen, of traditional masculinity.
In Everything Is Fine, directed by Mansi Jain and starring the majestic Seema Bhargava Pahwa, the husband’s misogyny is so endemic that it seems almost invisible. It’s not just the demand that the wife make tea for him, though both have just undertaken a gruelling journey to see their daughter in her new rented home in Delhi, but in other not-so-subtle putdowns. Why does the wife need to go out and explore the city, why does she need to buy a pair of shoes, and why does she need to learn how to sign a cheque? When the mother weeps aloud her frustration to the daughter and tells her she doesn’t want to return home, the daughter dismisses it: she’s just tired, the daughter says, her father after all is not a bad man.
A series of other short films in the last few months have tried to decipher just what being a man means—especially so in relation to the modern woman. In Priyanka Banerjee’s Devi, inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a group of women wait to journey onwards. It is only later in the film that you realise they are souls trapped together in purgatory by the violence of what their men have done to them. Divided by caste, class and religion, they are united by the violence done to them, from rape to murder, from broken bottles to deadly rocks. Banerjee didn’t want to show the perpetrators, only the women. “Everything else is left to the imagination in a world of Nirbhaya, the Kathua rape and the Shakti Mills horror. I wanted to shake people from their apathy,” she says. And she does, when the last victim walks in, a girl with pigtails.
In Nandita Das’ Listen to Her, made at her Mumbai home, during the lockdown, the film tracks rising domestic violence as the lockdown intensifies. Das complains to the police about her maid whose husband is threatening great harm to her even as she herself grapples with another level of smug masculinity: from getting the coffee to getting the door, everything is her responsibility, not that of her male partner, even as she watches over her son and works on her film.
For Das, the response has been truly overwhelming with many women sharing their own stories. As she says,“A film cannot create a revolution, but it can subliminally inform our choices and responses, create empathy, make us question and bring about awareness. The audio-visual medium has become a significant influence in this locked-down world. A short film can be easily watched and forwarded to reach the widest audience possible. It is amplifying the urgent need to create awareness about the issue with helpline numbers for women to reach out for support. This so-called private matter needs to be made public.”
Because it involves us all. How women respond to men who behave badly is at the root of Natkhat. Vidya Balan plays a ghoonghat-clad woman who endures violence from her frustrated husband every night but doesn’t want her son to grow up in the same way. She slowly enables him to distinguish between right and wrong, and ensures he chooses a more sensitive and empathetic way of being a boy. Of course, it raises the problematic issue of yet again placing the burden of raising our sons entirely on mothers. For Vyas, none of the men in the movie is evil. “They’ve just internalised patriarchy and the film speaks to that need for reform. It’s a male behavioural problem and I’ve had even some of my male friends write to me about how ashamed they are of their male privilege.” The movie is like a blow to the solar plexus and brings the lesson home, which may be why Balan didn’t hesitate to produce it, along with Ronnie Screwvala.
It’s a male behavioural problem and I’ve had even some of my male friends write to me about how ashamed they are of their male privilege, says Shaan Vyas, director of Natkhat
Share this on
Meraj Ahmed Mubarki who has studied the evolution of the Indian man on screen says these shorts touch something familiar to all of us. Recall the instance in Naya Daur (1957) where Dilip Kumar and Ajit are to decide who will get Vyjayanthimala without, of course, her character Rajni getting to decide it for herself. As in Everything Is Fine, the husband is no different from Shankar (Dilip Kumar) as he takes all decisions on Vyjanthimala’s behalf. This kind of rogue masculinity popularised in Hindi cinema became far more endemic from the 1970s onwards with angry young men taking things in their own hands, right up to Dabangg (2010) in which Chulbul Pandey feels he doesn’t need to take consent from Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha) before marrying her.
Cinema merely reflects the dominant values. A new more aggressive masculinity has emerged in Hindi cinema in the post-liberalisation age, says Mubarki, one which has taken advantage of the liberal values of its more Westernised ruling elite. It feels aggression is the legitimate expression of male individuality. The subaltern/urban male is asserting his individuality through the virtues of virility and manliness. The aggressive macho man has replaced the Nehruvian hero who was more into nationbuilding. The post-Nehruvian hero is all about securing the state from all rival claimants.And keeping the woman submissive. Bhargava Pahwa says she sees so many women like her character, especially in small towns. “They don’t even know they are oppressed. Even I, if I do one thing for myself, I will do nine for the family. Women are conditioned that way. We all become our mothers and mothers-in-law,” she says.
The audio-visual medium has become a significant influence in this locked-down world. A short film can be easily watched and forwarded to reach the widest audience possible, says Nandita Das, director of Listen to Her
Share this on
In many cases, this suffocation has increased post-Covid-19, and men and women have had to renegotiate their relationships. In the tongue-in-cheek Banana Bread, directed by Srinivas Sunderrajan, real-life couple Rasika Dugal and Mukul Chadda act as new neighbours during the pandemic. On the one hand, there is a renewed desire to meet. On the other, it almost feels awkward figuring out the new norms about getting close or not. So, have men and women become more tolerant or less tolerant of each other?
Dugal says, “As a society, we have become more polarised in the last few years than ever. There are strong opinions which become more radical with fierce and constant articulation of them on various social media forums. We live in times where a moderate or gentle stance is seen as a position of weakness and not of nuance. I think anyone who perceives another as the ‘other’ [whether on the basis of gender, identity, ethnicity, religion or political beliefs] is thriving in an environment of low tolerance.”
We watch her trying to ignore the differences, focusing on what they have in common and sometimes justifying what he says to fit her worldview. It’s the same for the man, notes Chadda: “It’s a film about loneliness, especially for those who live alone. They’re willing to tolerate so many more differences—that we’ve lately become intolerant of—because of the need for company.” Men and women are suddenly more equal by becoming equally vulnerable.
In Devi, where the number of women in the room grows in proportion to the crimes in the real world, with a rape every 22 minutes, there is much chatter among the souls about overcrowding. But Kajol, playing the nameless leader of the group, says: ‘We were adjusting there. Why not here?’ It’s that compromise Bhargava Pahwa is opposed to. Women have decided to live in this enforced world of sacrifice and sighs. They need to snap out of it and claim their independence.
We live in times where a moderate or gentle stance is seen as a position of weakness and not of nuance, says Rasika Dugal, actor
Share this on
In Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn, the director takes the stars of his beloved blockbuster Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010), Simbu and Trisha, playing Karthik and Jessie. Shot during the lockdown, the Tamil short film revisits the two characters. Karthik (Simbu) is still a man-child looking for validation while Trisha (Jessie) has moved on, with marriage and two children. The film inspired many memes partly because it was unusual in the way it portrayed the conventional Indian man. Here he is unsure, seeking the approval of the woman he loves, and has hit a creative roadblock. Only Jessie can help him, and she can only offer him platonic friendship.
Ghar Se, a Hindi film made by Malayalam filmmaker Mridul K Nair, is darker. A man is on the run for a rape. His mother and wife wait for him at night, stirring up a concoction that will send him towards death. All it takes is one more whack with a rolling pin and there is some redemption, some consequences for a crime committed.